For the past 65 years, the United States has maintained the world’s largest interstate highway system. For the next 65 years, China is likely to maintain the world’s most extensive high-speed rail (HSR) network. That enormous investment, with a long time horizon, has caused consternation both within China and outside of it.

Detractors have called it a monumental white elephant. Proponents have touted the myriad economic benefits the network brings. Returns on mega infrastructure projects are notoriously difficult to specify, and China’s HSR network is no exception. But with the passage of time, we can now better assess whether HSR was a boon or a royal boondoggle to the Chinese economy.

This unique product provides not only the simple answer to that question, but it also takes you on a journey to get up to speed with China’s bullet trains and their impact on local economies.

HSR Cost and Benefit

More than a decade since China began to link the country by high-speed rail (HSR), that network today stretches more than 22,000 miles and connects roughly 80% of Chinese cities. Each day, nearly 1,000 trains fan out from China’s largest cities carrying six million people, or four times higher than the daily volume of air travel. And Beijing is not done yet: it intends to add another 6,000 miles of HSR by 2025.

Billed as an unvarnished success by the Chinese government, the HSR project in reality has brought with it controversy—from technology transfer and a fatal accident early on to its astronomical cost. China has accrued more than half a trillion dollars in debt as a result of HSR construction.

So was it worth it? Our short answer: from an economic standpoint, it was worth it. Based on a careful cost and benefit analysis and using a framework similar to the World Bank’s, we estimate that the HSR network confers a net benefit of $378 billion to the Chinese economy and has an annual ROI of 6.5%. (For more detailed methodology, click here.)

Net benefit of $378 billion

Annual ROI of 6.5%


Construction cost Interest payment Infrastructure maintenance Rolling stock Operating cost
$602 billion $303 billion $404 billion $531 billion $141 billion
Total cost:
-$1.98 trillion


Airplane substitution benefits (net) Rail construction deferred Time savings Operating cost savings Generated traffic benefits
$62 billion $348 billion $1.01 trillion $304 billion $636 billion
Total benefit:
$2.36 trillion